Today's society is a multicultural environment that holds both extreme promise and conflicts (Adler, 1998, pp. 225-245). Through rapid developments in technology, global communication has been revolutionized in the past few decades. By the end of the twentieth century, new technology made it simple for people in different cultures to communicate with each other at lightning speeds.
As a result, a greater number of people are exposed to cultures other than their own. Due to communication technology, people are no longer isolated by borders and other obstacles and have ample opportunities to experience different cultures.
However, this incredible occurrence has brought conflict amongst people from different cultures, due to differences in language, manners, opinions, lifestyles and other factors. As a result, intercultural conflict management has become necessary in helping people to understand one another.
Conflict occurs at all levels of human interactions, whether it is interpersonal, social, national, or international. Conflict is not always a negative thing. In fact, conflict can be sometimes present an opportunity for growth and development.
Intercultural conflict can be individual, cultural, personal and social (Avruch, 1998, pp. 42-44). Ambiguity is a typical characteristic of intercultural conflicts and tends to make people react with a "default conflict style," which can be counterproductive. In addition, language issues present further challenges when dealing with multiple cultures. Often, different orientations to conflict management styles can further complicate intercultural conflict.
Conflict as Opportunity
There are two basic orientations to conflict. The first is conflict as a source of opportunity. Many interpersonal communication scholars assume this perspective. Conflict can be defined, in this scenario, as a real or perceived incompatibility of goals, values, expectations, process, or outcomes between two or more individuals or groups.
Conflict is presented as an opportunity to further relationships, and to initiate or build stronger, more satisfying relationships. According to researcher David Augsburger (1992, p. 167), this perspective on conflict assumes four things:
Conflict is normal and productive.
All issues can be changed through negotiation.
Direct confrontation and conciliation are valuable.
Conflict is a necessary renegotiation of contract, a release of tensions, and a renewal of relationships.
According to this conflict management theory, there are many benefits involved in working through conflicts. For example, one might gain new information about other groups, prevent more serious conflicts from occurring, and increase unity amongst cultures.
This perspective encourages conflict management through using creative solutions to conflict resolution. The primary goal is to recognize and work through conflicts in an open, productive manner.
According to supporters of this theory, conflict-free relationships are not better than ones with conflict. Instead, they are just the opposite, as they are not ignoring or avoiding issues that must be dealt with. From this perspective, conflict can be considered a renegotiation of contract and cause for celebration.
Conflict as Destructive
Some cultures see conflict as unproductive and destructive. In some cases, spiritual or cultural values see conflict as dangerous or wrong. According to Augsburger (1992, p. 182), this perspective on conflict assumes four things:
Conflict is a destructive disturbance of peace.
The social system should not be adjusted to the needs of its members. Instead, its members must adapt to the established values.
Confrontations are destructive and ineffective.
Disputants should be disciplined.
The Amish assume this perspective on conflict, saying that conflict presents certain destruction to their community harmony. They tend to avoid conflict, rather than embrace it. Groups that see conflict as a destructive thing often steer clear of low-level conflict and may seek third party intervention from an intermediary on a formal or informal basis.
For these groups, discipline is sometimes used to reprimand conflict and discourage future conflict. However, while this approach may seem to be the least resistant, it usually is ineffective in eliminating conflict. The "peacemaking" approach is a more effective way of dealing with interpersonal conflict. This method aims to deflate conflicts or negotiate solutions to resolve conflicts.
General Styles of Conflict Management
Intercultural conflict can best be described as the perceived or actual incompatibility of values, norms, processes, or goals between two or more cultural parties regarding content, identity, relational, and procedural issues.
Cultural background has an enormous influence on how people deal with conflicts (Wheeler, 1995). There are five styles of conflict management.
Dominating Style -- This person demonstrates high concern for himself and low concern for other. In addition, he uses forceful behaviors to win.
Integrating Style -- This person demonstrates high concern for both himself and others. He actively seeks a peaceful solution to the conflict. This style is seen as the most effective form of conflict management. However, it also requires the most time and energy.
Compromising Style -- This person demonstrates a moderate degree of concern for himself and others. He concentrates on finding a fair solution, which often involves sacrifice from both parties.
Obliging Style -- One of the conflicting parties plays down the differences that separate the two parties while emphasizing what they have in common.
Avoiding Style -- In many cultures, this style is seen as an appropriate style that enhances the harmony of relationships. In others, it demonstrates low concern for one's self.
Major Characteristics of Intercultural Conflict
According to Stella Ting-Toomey (1999, pp. 194-230), the major characteristics of intercultural conflict are the following:
Conflict involves intercultural perceptions -- perceptions are filtered through our lenses of ethnocentrism and stereotypes, and perceptions color our conflict attribution process;
Conflict involves interaction -- conflict is sustained and managed via verbal and nonverbal behaviors, and verbal and nonverbal behaviors are culture-bound concepts;
Conflict involves interdependence -- for a conflict to arise, the behavior of one or both parties must have consequences for the other, for otherwise the conflict parties can walk away from each other easily;
Conflict involves both self-interest and mutual-interest goals -- conflict is a mixed-up and incomplete jigsaw puzzle, both parties needing something from each other in order to complete the entire picture;
Conflict involves the protection of intergroup images -- in an intercultural or intergroup conflict situation, conflict parties have to worry about protecting both individual and group-based images.
The Importance of Intercultural Conflict Management in a Business Environment
Due to the shift in society to a global marketplace, project managers now require tools and skills that help them to be "interculturally professional" (Augsburger, 1992, p. 110). This enables them to merge divergent cultural attitudes, beliefs and behavior, and to build a united, effective international team.
The European Commission recently turned down General Electric Company's proposed $42 billion purchase of Honeywell International, Inc. (Cohen, 2001, p. B1) When the proposed acquisition was first announced in 2000, United Technologies Corporation and Rolls-Royce PLC displayed opposition to the purchase in Europe for a variety of reasons.
United Technologies made a particularly convincing case, because, "United Technologies contributed the most in terms of factual evidence, industry background and economic insight." According to General Electric's key economist, the top antitrust lawyer for United Technologies Corporation's "grasp of cultural nuances was a significant factor." (Cohen, 2001, p. B1)
This is an excellent example of importance of effective cross-cultural communication in a society that is becoming more globally integrated. Today, this sort of competitive transnational activity has an enormous impact on project management. In businesses across the globe, multi-cultural projects are becoming more and more necessary. As a result, individuals and companies must take notice of intercultural conflict management.
Culture impacts business in a variety of ways. Recent research suggests that ethnic culture has a stronger influence on people's behavior than organizational culture (Augsburger, 1992, p. 167). Therefore, while an individual may strive to adapt to an organization's culture, his behavior will be primarily driven by his ethnic culture.
When working with a multicultural team, project professionals have to face many new challenges, including language barriers, socio-economic factors, time differences, political and religious differences, and more. Therefore, it is critical that businesses and individuals be aware of these cultural differences and understand how to minimize, or eliminate, the potential conflicts they may create.
Cross-cultural communications, in a business environment, require verbal and nonverbal interaction between people from many different cultural groups. To effectively incorporate intercultural conflict management, businesses must recognize the impact that cultural factors have on communications.
In addition, businesses and individuals must increase awareness of both verbal and nonverbal differences and recognize cultural differences that could lead to conflicts. For example, a French person might interpret an American's words to mean something entirely different than was intended. Therefore, it is crucial to eliminate or minimize these potential problems.
Effective intercultural conflict management can work to promote innovative thinking among multicultural teams to resolve potential communication barriers before they become conflicts. Intercultural conflict management can be effective in promoting new ideas and generating alternatives. Multicultural projects can enhance overall performance and improve a project if conflicts are properly managed (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 197)
When effectively managing intercultural conflict in a business environment, it is important to eliminate any signs of distrust among ethnic groups, as it is one of…